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Past, Present, Future

Luke 3:15-38

Luke, in his account, gives us the warnings of John, then the baptism of Christ, followed by a genealogy. We will reverse this order as it may prove easier to comprehend.

John answered and said to them all, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. "His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people. But when Herod the tetrarch was reprimanded by him because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and because of all the wicked things which Herod had done, Herod also added this to them all: he locked John up in prison. Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, "You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased." When He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, the son of Eli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Hesli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Heber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

(Luke 3:16-38 NASB)


Many people have attempted, and failed, to read through the entire Bible in a year. There are a number of stopping points; the most common one is the “begats.” Unless you happen to be one of those people who enjoys researching your family history, genealogies usually are rather boring. My father solemnly warned me against such research; his uncle took up this hobby during the Great Depression and wound up with thirty-one relatives living with him.

They have their uses, however:

  • For the people of the time, they would be like the family scrapbook – a way to remember who was who. In some instances (such as those who could become priests) it was necessary to prove descent from some particular ancestor.
  • One other thing they provide is this: we are dealing with real people. Some characters in the Old Testament have no genealogy; this always piques the curiosity of the scholars. Why did Elijah have no parents? What about Job? Real people have ancestors; they come from someplace.
  • Genealogies give a sense of continuity which is lacking for us today. Most of us would have difficulty naming all eight of our great-grandparents. Living in a society in which a man would trace his descent from Adam provides a great sense of belonging.

This particular genealogy, however, has its little problems. It does not concur with the one in Matthew until you get back to David, the king. Various explanations have been brought forth for this, but it is not regarded as a serious textual problem. Luke undoubtedly had a copy of Matthew’s Gospel; failure to replicate his genealogy could hardly have been an accident. Of the explanations proposed, two stand out.

  • The first holds that there are two lineages – one to establish the legal claim to the throne of David, and the other the physical descent.
  • The other one is simpler: this is the genealogy not of Joseph but of Mary – which establishes his physical descent through her. In the custom of the time, her name would not be included.

Whichever is the correct explanation, this list gives rise to two of the favorite titles of our Lord, the ones he used most commonly:

  • Son of man – descended from Adam, he is as human as we are.
  • Son of David – in accordance with the promises and prophecies given, Jesus is the descendant of David who will rule forever on David’s throne.
Does having an ancestry help, or hinder?

There is a practical side to genealogy for us. Permit me a minor digression.

My father was born, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. The railroad was still the main form of long distance transportation, and in those days engines were powered by coal. Coal dust and ashes coated the down wind side of town. In his case, it was of more significance. Oil had been found there, and some of the residents were quite wealthy – those who had participated in the oil boom. It was a small town, and everyone knew just which side of the tracks you came from. They expected certain behavior from each group.

So oppressive was this system that it literally moved our family. My father was a career soldier; when he retired, he moved to California. I once asked him why. His reply was, simply, “Here, no one cares who your father was.”

Consider, however, the opposite case. Suppose your parents were born on the right side; what then? Johann Sebastian Bach had twenty children; only two or three succeeded as composers. Were the others failures? Do you see how a worthy ancestor puts an additional burden on you? This is true in the church as well; what are your expectations of the preacher’s kids?

Now consider this: those who have died in the Lord still live in him, and will be seen again at the last day. If you are the descendant of someone great in the church, do you suppose they have an opinion of you? The cloud of witnesses may be watching you.


The instance of the present is the baptism of Jesus. It is more completely detailed in the other Gospels; we can but pick out some nuggets here.

The principle of example.

From the very first the question arose, “John’s baptism is for repentance. Why would Jesus, the sinless one, need that?” If you want the right answers, you have to ask the right questions. Let’s try, “Why do we need to see our Lord baptized?”

  • Have you considered what might have happened if he hadn’t been? Many of us are willing to become Christians – but if we had a choice about admitting that we are sinners by being baptized, don’t you think that some would think it beneath their royal dignity? But if Christ himself was baptized, what earthly king could think it beneath him?
  • Think, also, what a royal privilege it is for us! The king of kings went through this ceremony; we are privileged to do likewise. It is our entrance into the royal priesthood.
  • Finally, it is an example to us – of the humility and obedience of Christ. If he is so willing, how could we refuse?
The principle of identification

We must remember that Christ is fully human. This is a very human thing to do. So, if you will, he became like us, right down to baptism. And the purpose of this? So that we might become like him in his resurrection glory. It is written that he did this to fulfill all righteousness, and it is by baptism that we take on that righteousness.

The appearance of the Trinity

The incident also gives us the most visible picture of the Trinity.

  • John had been given the prophecy that he would know the Christ by the fact that the Holy Spirit would descend on him like a dove.[1] Thus, this was planned so that all might know.
  • The descent of the Spirit here tells us how the Spirit comes into our lives – he descends from God, not arises from us. And he does so, gently.
  • Indeed, the dove is a symbol of gentleness. But do recall: only the truly strong can be gentle.

Future – the Judgment

John has a clear grasp of who the Christ is – in terms of his mission and task. He knows his own task, and therefore knows himself to be utterly unworthy for it. Would you like a sign that you truly know Christ? That’s a good one.

  • John is the last of the prophets of the Old Testament era – the ones under the Law. He is the prophet of the coming of the Holy One.
  • He knows his own unworthiness. Just like Ezekiel; just like Daniel; just like all the others who saw the Living God.

But in this passage we see the prophet foretelling what is to come. Baptism does that; it is a symbol of the resurrection to come at the return of our Lord. On that day, even one so great as John the Baptist will be less than those in the kingdom. This is not for our own worthiness, but because of God’s grace.

His fate

Prophets, it seems, are not particularly well qualified for diplomatic missions. John did what the prophets of old did; he rebuked the ruling class for its sins. He got the usual reward for it too.

Over and again – Paul and Festus spring to mind – we see the fascination that a prophet has for an evil ruler. Herod was fascinated by the man. I suspect it was his simplicity; here was the rare exception to the yes-men; here was one who was single-minded. Herod could admire the virtue, if not emulate it.

But, as we know, Herod eventually beheaded John. We need to remember that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his godly ones.”[2] The honor of dying for the cause of God is indeed great.

The Winnowing Fork

John also shared the style of preaching of the prophets. To understand his agricultural metaphor, we might need to know just what a winnowing fork is. Here’s a picture of one:

winnowing fork

This is one taken from an archeological site in Egypt, but it is contemporary with Christ. The process of winnowing grain was done in three steps. First, you drove the animals over the grain. That broke things down enough so that you could separate out the kernels. You did that by taking the winnowing fork and using it to rake out the straw – the wheat stalks. Once this was done, you tossed the result into the air with a stiff breeze blowing – which blew the chaff away.

So, to have the winnowing fork in hand meant that you were ready to do some serious work in separating the good from the bad.

When I was a jury foreman, I had to fill out the form needed to record the verdict. It had only two options: guilty or not guilty. We looked for middle ground, and found none. In God’s judgment there is no fence to sit on.

More than that, we need to remember that he told us, many times, that he would come when unexpected. He’s prepared to separate us.

The real question is not what he’s ready to do. The real question, as always, is simply this: are we ready for his return?

[1] John 1:29-31

[2] Psalm 116:15

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